Confronting Expectations: Women in the Legal Acdemy
26 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2008 Last revised: 22 May 2014
Date Written: December 11, 1996
A seemingly insurmountable barrier to women's success in legal academia is the way they are perceived. Numerous studies have shown that women are perceived as less competent than men and that the same work is evaluated more critically when it is thought to have been done by a woman than by a man. This problem exists in all aspects of life, but it is especially acute for women in professional roles, such as academics. Legal academia, however, seems to be particularly resistant to viewing women as equally competent. The article presents original empirical research that shows that student evaluations of women faculty tend to be more hostile than those of male faculty. Comments on their appearance, pieces of "advice," and vicious personal attacks are not uncommon. When women law professors do receive positive comments, they are much different in nature from the comments received by male professors. Whereas men are most often praised for their "mastery of the subject matter," women are usually praised for being enthusiastic and approachable. Furthermore, the same negative attributes in men and women may be interpreted differently by students. For example, what may pass as theoretical musings from men often is interpreted as confusion from women. Because women lack the presumption of competence, they are continuously being challenged, resulting in a hostile "prove it" atmosphere.
Why can't women law faculty overcome the lingering skepticism about women's competence? Is the problem merely that women cannot seem to shake stereotypes that are produced elsewhere? Attempts to simply deny these stereotypes, expecting that they will disappear as more women enter the academy, will be unsuccessful because they fail to recognize the crux of the problem. The presumption that women lack authority is not simply replicated in legal academia, but is actively produced there as well. That is, legal academia constructs a social reality rather than mirroring one constructed elsewhere. The question then is, how does legal education reinforce this patriarchal organization?
Keywords: Gender, legal education, student evaluations, stereotypes, women law professors
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